15 Best Things to Do in Tennessee

Written by Veronique Raes
Updated on
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Tennessee has it all: a bustling music scene in its lively cities of Memphis and Nashville, tourist attractions such as Graceland and stunning natural paradises that provide something for everyone. Whether you are a country music lover in search of a little live music and bourbon or country line-dancing, Memphis and Nashville await you with open arms. Or, hop behind the wheel of a pick-up truck and hit the road; there are plenty of national parks and mountains for you to explore! Check out the gorgeous caves and Smoky Mountain Range for a few days, and enjoy the break from your busy life.

Lets explore the best things to do in Tennessee:

1. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The Great Smoky Mountains National ParkSource: flickr
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that spans the ridgeline of the Great Smoky Mountains and part of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and is the most visited national park in the United States! The famous Appalachian Trail passes through the park, which was dedicated by President Franklin D Roosevelt in 1940 and was one of the first federally funded parks in the nation.

Why not put this on your to-do list when you’re in Tennessee? The main entrance is at Gatlinburg, a charming mountain town. After wandering the main street, grab your hiking boots and explore the many trails, like Alum Cave Trail, to experience the wildlife, geology and history of the park. Don’t miss Cades Cove, a valley of preserved historic buildings from bygone eras – bring your camera and let nature impress you. And, the best part is: there is no entry fee!

2. Graceland, the Playground of Elvis

Graceland MansionSource: flickr
Graceland Mansion

Located in Memphis, Tennessee, the original Graceland Mansion was home to Elvis Presley until it was converted into a museum and opened to the public in 1982 by his surviving family. It is both a National Historic Landmark and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and is one of the most-visited private homes in America, second only to the White House.

Purchased originally by Elvis to avoid the spotlight, the estate gradually expanded over the rolling pastures of the surrounding lands. Elvis and his beloved mother decorated the house, and when you tour it today, you’ll notice his eclectic tastes. Wander the rooms of the museum to see his famous Vegas jumpsuits, awards or car collection. Presley’s two planes are even still kept on the grounds! Whether you are interested in American pop history or a fan of the music, Graceland is a cultural and architectural experience you shouldn’t miss.

3. Vibrant Music Scene of Nashville

NashvilleSource: flickr

Tennessee is the birthplace of country music and maintains a host of diverse music venues for locals and visitors. What is not to like about listening to the next great artists in a bar while sipping on some delicious Tennessee bourbon? Nashville is full of neighborhoods overflowing with music and fun, and home to the long-running Grand Ole Opry, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.

Take a stroll along Broadway and stop in at Bootleggers Inn, which is a fusion of Prohibition history and great music in the heart of downtown! Or, head over to Germantown to the Nashville Jazz Workshop if want to spice it up and get away from country for a little while. Whether you love pop, rock, country, gospel or jazz, keep your eyes peeled for the guitar-pick shaped signs dotting Nashville to discover music venues as you wander the Music City. We’re sure you’ll stumble upon a true gem.

4. Dollywood

DollywoodSource: flickr

Dolly Parton, inspired by her own experience as a famous country singer, was the driving force behind the remake of this amusement park in the Knoxville-Smoky Mountains metro-plex at Pigeon Forge. It was originally owned by the Robins Brother and named “Silver Dollar City”. Dolly Parton herself, grew up in the area and after becoming famous, purchased shares of the amusement part and worked on remarking the park, eventually renamed “Dollywood” in her honor.

The park has doubled in size since its founding and is now home to ten themed areas, such as Showstreet, Country Fair, Jukebox Junction and many others. Aside from standard amusement park rides, it also features the culture and music of the South Appalachian region, as well as a full-size steam train! Stop by any day between Presidents Day and the Christmas Holidays, or for any of the 5 festivals Dollywood hosts.

5. Tennessee Civil War Trails

Tennessee Civil War TrailsSource: flickr
Tennessee Civil War Trails

Tennessee was an important player in the Civil War, contributing large numbers of both Confederate and Union soldiers, and weathering many important battles between the two sides. The Civil War Trail markers outline important historic places through the state, and battleground sites that have been preserved.

Sign markers begin in Franklin and Blountville, along with several others in Columbia lining a critical phase in General Hood’s campaign of 1864 to regain control of Tennessee (following the defeat at Shiloh to the Union, Memphis soon fell into their control and remained there, despite Confederate efforts to regain the state). Visit the key battleground at Chattanooga and experience Civil War history in person! Don’t miss the National Civil Rights Museum along the way, or the Andrew Johnson National Historic Site.

6. The Parthenon

ParthenonSource: flickr

You don’t even have to go to Athens to see this beautiful sculpture, a full-scale replica of the original Parthenon. It was built in 1897 for the Tennessee Centennial Exposition, and now functions as an art museum. The Parthenon is located in Centennial Park and decorated with plaster replicas that are casts of the original sculptures that adorned the Athenian Parthenon, including a statue of Athena Parthenos.

Take an afternoon off from music and enjoy yourself at the “Athens of the South” while in Nashville. It was originally set to be demolished until its popularity was realized, which means you still are lucky enough to see this American architectural feat! Now, it houses a permanent collection of 63 paintings from 19th and 29th century American artists, as well as rotating shows and exhibits. Art culture only enhances music, and why not experience both while in Nashville?

7. Tennessee Valley Railroad Museums

Tennessee Valley Railroad MuseumSource: flickr
Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum

Ride the rails like people used to do so many years ago. The Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum is a chapter of the National Railway Historical Society and was founded by Paul H Merriman and Robert M Soule along with their group of railway preservationists who were interested in preserving steam locomotives y railway equipment for future historical use. We all now benefit from this foresight with this fascinating historical museum!

Founded in 1960, the museum originally stored equipment from Western Union until more cars were added after passenger service on Southern Railway was ended. In 1970, their permanent facility opened in East Chattanooga, and now it runs trains so that visitors can experience what railroading was like on old fashioned steam engines. Take their one-hour excursion on a steam locomotive, or the half day excursion on Hiwassee Loop. Relax and kick back on the train and learn a little more about this fascinating mode of transportation and how it transformed the country.

8. Knoxville, Tennessee

KnoxvilleSource: flickr

Knoxville, located in Knox County, was settled in 1786 and was the first capital of Tennessee. Blossoming after the arrival of the railroad, Knoxville was split over Civil War and suffered in the Great Depression Era, continuing to decline in the 20th century. The city has made a comeback in recent years and has made itself a fountain of Appalachian culture and a gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Come visit this bustling city filled with culture and art! Stop in at the Beck Culture Exchange Center, or tour the Knoxville Museum of Art. You should also check out one of the many festivals the city puts on each year, such as the Bacon Fest or Biscuit Fest – who can resist an excuse to eat more in such quaint surroundings?! There is also the tempting BrewFest and many other attractions in Downtown Knoxville no matter what time of the year you are here. Kick back and enjoy some authentic Southern charm and fun!

9. Lookout Mountain

Lookout MountainSource: flickr
Lookout Mountain

Lookout Mountain is a mountain ridge nestled overlapping the northwest of Georgia, the northeast of Alabama and the Tennessee state line in Chattanooga. Said to have been named for the Cherokee term for two mountains looking at each other, Lookout Mountain was the site of the “last battle of the Cherokees” during the Nickajack Expedition and the Battle of Lookout Mountain during the American Civil War.

Now, it is a natural paradise awaiting your visit! Tour the Ruby Falls Cavern, a popular destination and beautiful waterfall, or Rock City. At Rock City, there are many different events over the course of the year, such as uniquely named events Lover’s Leap or Fat Man’s Squeeze.  Finally, visit Incline Railway or the Battle of Chattanooga Museum. You’ll be enchanted by the whimsy and history of the mountains!

10. The Titanic Museum

The Titanic MuseumSource: flickr
The Titanic Museum

The Titanic Museum in Pigeon Forge is the largest permanent Titanic museum in the world. It opened in 2010 and is built to half-scale of the original ship. The museum holds 400 pre-discovery artifacts displayed in twenty galleries in an elaborate design that cost $25 million to build! While one might not expect a nautical museum in a landlocked state, don’t miss out on this excellent Tennessee experience!

When you first enter, you’ll be given a passenger boarding ticket with the name of an actual Titanic passenger, and in which class they were traveling. Walk through the ship and put yourself in the shoes of that passenger; it even appears to be at sea since it is built in a pool! Wander through a 2 hour self-guided tour that ends in the Titanic Memorial Room, where you will discover whether the passenger listed on your ticket survived. You’ll feel like you understand the sad story of this beautiful, doomed ship and its passengers just a little better.

11. Lost Sea Cave at Craighead Caverns

Craighead CavernsSource: thelostsea
Craighead Caverns

Located between Sweetwater and Madisonville, Tennessee, Craighead Caverns is named after a Cherokee chief, Chief Craighead, and contains the largest non-subglacial lake in the U.S., The Lost Sea. Take a trip out to the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains to visit these caves and their pretty crystal clusters dotting the caves and gorgeous waterfall.

You’re walking through a lot of history here – the caverns were mined by Confederate soldiers during the war for saltpeter, needed for manufacturing gunpowder. Explore the caverns and take a boat tour of the Lost Sea, which extends farther than you can see and fills many rooms to the brim with water. The boat tour is considered the highlight of the trip by most, and provides ample opportunities for seeing the crystal cluster stalactites and arches of the cavers, which create enchanting shadows in this underground mystery world.

12. Bell Witch Cave

Bell Witch CaveSource: flickr
Bell Witch Cave

Tennessee if full of enticing natural attractions, like the Bell Witch Cave in Adams, Tennessee. This karst cave is still owned privately, with tours offered in the summer and October. It stands on the grounds of Bell Farm, which no longer is in existence, and harkens back to an era in which the Bell Witch supposedly haunted the Bell Family. Folklore has it that when she finally fled, she hid in the sanctuary of the cave.

If you’re in Tennessee during the summer, take a break from the heat and retreat into the 490 foot long cave. You’ll enjoy the surrounding nature. If you’re brave enough to venture in, maybe you too will hear the ghost of the old witch giving a lecture on cave exploring, much as she did so many years ago to the young Bell children who had thoughtlessly entered the cave.

13. Oak Ridge, The Secret City

Oak RidgeSource: flickr
Oak Ridge

Oak Ridge is a city in Anderson and Roan counties in eastern Tennessee, west of Knoxville. One of the more curious parts of U.S. history, it was established in 1942 by scientists from the Manhattan Project as they worked on developing the atomic bomb and hidden from the public for years. The Oak Ridge National Laboratory still performs scientific research to this day.

The military developed the land into this secret city during WWII because of the ease of access from the highway but still secluded area. The populate grew to over 70,000 by 1945 but still managed to remain in obscurity, and none of them even knew what they were working on until news of the first atomic bomb hitting Japan reached them! You can visit this now integrated city and imagine what it must have been life for those living here and working towards their destructive buy unknown goal. The idyllic surroundings clash with the harsh reality of the original purpose for the city and make for an impactful experience.

14. Virgin Falls Pocket Wilderness

Virgin Falls Pocket WildernessSource: ncwaterfalls
Virgin Falls Pocket Wilderness

This natural preserve occupies over 1,000 acres and is close to the Bridgestone Firestone Centennial Wilderness. The actual Virgin Falls are formed by an underground stream that flows out of a cave to cascade down a 110 foot high cliff before disappearing back into another cave at the bottom. This pocket hides a few other gorgeous waterfalls as well, such as Sheep Cave Falls or Big Laurel.

Come visit Virgin Falls Pocket Wilderness and bring your camera to capture these magnificent waterfalls, or to enjoy its geological features. There is a gorgeous vista at Caney Fork Overlook that affords you a view of Scott’s Gulf and the Caney Fork River. You can hit the recreational trail to catch everything – it’s well worth the exercise and the trip!

15. The Crystal Shrine Grotto

Crystal Shrine GrottoSource: wikimedia
Crystal Shrine Grotto

Located in Memphis, Tennessee, the Crystal Shrine Grotto is located far away from the chaotic tourism of Graceland, in the Memorial Park Cemetery. Follow the tree-lined drive to the rocky spire and enjoy the kind of silence only heard in cemeteries. The Grotto was built by Dionicio Rodriguez and completed by 1938 and is a collection of handmade Bible Scenes.

Walk through the hole in the concrete tree stump, named Abraham’s Oak and peruse the rock quartz crystal and semi-precious stone stories. Rodriguez recreates the story of “Christ’s journey” in a peaceful, beautiful space away from the hot summer sun. Enjoy the respite from mainstream tourism and wander the experience created by Rodriguez’s expert, self-taught craftsmanship.

15 Best Things to Do in Tennessee:

  • The Great Smoky Mountains National Park
  • Graceland, the Playground of Elvis
  • Vibrant Music Scene of Nashville
  • Dollywood
  • Tennessee Civil War Trails
  • The Parthenon
  • Tennessee Valley Railroad Museums
  • Knoxville, Tennessee
  • Lookout Mountain
  • The Titanic Museum
  • Lost Sea Cave at Craighead Caverns
  • Bell Witch Cave
  • Oak Ridge, The Secret City
  • Virgin Falls Pocket Wilderness
  • The Crystal Shrine Grotto